I have a twin brother. Another way of stating this is I am a twin. Mike Maginnis’ novel, Fat Man and Little Boy, begins:
Two Bombs over Japan.
One called Little Boy. One called Fat Man. Three days apart. The one implicit in the other.
I grew up in a context in which “I” was divided. I was him. He was me. To claim an identity—to stake out a set of characteristics and traits, mannerisms and faults, values and fleeting beliefs—was lost to pronouns. I developed a tick the neurologist called Tourette’s syndrome. Then my brother did. He asked for hockey pads. Then I wanted my own. Did the order matter when the results were the same, when the boys both had Tourette’s, when the boys wanted to play hockey, the same desires expressed in interchangeable order?
Two boys. Two minutes apart. The one implicit in the other.
First lines can carry significant weight.
Alan Singer: “I am not myself.”
David Foster Wallace: “I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.”
Helen Oyeyemi: “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.”
Don DeLillo: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.”
First lines—the best of them, at least—tell us what’s ahead. They manage to encapsulate and summarize the entirety of a world in its fullest sense with economy and efficiency, so that if we return to them later, we can revise our understanding of what we’ve already interpreted and realize the greater import of a tiny snippet.
My girlfriend’s ex-roommate, to her, when this roommate first saw my brother and I together: “Have you ever accidentally had sex with his brother?”
Hruby, my ostensible middle school friend: “[insert any number of twin incest jokes here]”
Jesse, the high school bastard who later found himself in the sex offender section of the state’s Rolodex: “Maybe you two share a brain?”
All the people I have ever met: “What’s it like being a twin?”
Him, her, them, you, me: “Are you you or your brother?”
I don’t remember the first words I spoke.
My brother’s first word: “Aye-ack,” the infant pronunciation of my name, Eric, his first assertion of sovereignty. His identification of me as someone other than him.
My first word: “Mye-doe,” the infant pronunciation of my brother’s name, Michael, my own assertion.
Maybe we called to one another from different rooms of the house.
Maybe we lay in our crib, infant limbs squirming in different colored onesies, trying to suss out the emerging differences between us by speaking the others’ name.
I don’t remember. My mother told us our first words.
What I know: we did not look at one another and say, “Me.”
My brother and I were 16 and shared a used Jeep Cherokee. It was green with rust spots and a faulty left turn signal from the time he skidded on the ice into an old man’s Buick. We went to school one morning. He drove, I rode in the front passenger seat. He parked where we always parked, in the gravel lot behind the high school next to the shipping company garage full of empty semi trailers. We had hockey practice after school. The arena was less than a mile away, close enough to walk, but not if you wanted to make it on time.
That day, my brother forgot to turn off the headlights when he parked in the morning. The engine wouldn’t so much as mumble when he tried to turn it over after school.
My first words to him: “You idiot.”
I said, “What the hell were you thinking?”
He said, “I’m sorry.”
I said, “You fucking idiot.”
We found some people exiting the school—a classmate we knew and his girlfriend, a senior.
“This idiot forgot to turn off the headlights this morning,” I said. “We’re gonna be late because of him.”
The senior girl didn’t have jumper cables, but she had no problem driving us. She let us sit in back.
I said, “You fucking idiot.”
My brother said, “I’m sorry.”
“I can’t believe this. You’re such a god damn idiot.”
The senior girl looked at us in the rear view mirror with a face nearly as red as my brother’s.
“It’s not a problem,” she said.
I pictured myself making the same honest mistake, leaving the lights on and walking away.
I pointed at my brother and made another assertion.
I said, “This is his fault.”
I wanted to make sure she got her pronouns straight.
A person’s identity is a messy tangle of varying factors.
What’s your religion?
Who did you vote for?
Who do you love?
What is your vocation?
What language do you speak?
What’s the place that you call home?
There are all sorts of demographic, moral, religious, geographical, and cultural data that inform a person’s answer to the question, “Who are you?” Many things that constitute identity are external to any single person. There are brand loyalties. There are professional titles. There are places that you shop, teams you cheer for. It’s like we outsource who we are.
In America, few physical traits are acceptable as individual identifiers.
You’re black, brown, yellow, red, or white, although this is to the chagrin of many, those who claim not to see such differences and those who claim these differences, though existent, don’t actually matter in the course of someone’s daily life (though of course they do matter).
You’re old or young, which is a factor that tends to get snarled with other cultural things, like technological literacy and political values.
If you’re fat, you can become thin.
If you’re scrawny, you can put on weight.
You are the gender you say you are, and—the insurance company willing, if you’re fortunate enough to have good health insurance—you can alter your body to reflect the wiring of your brain. With the exception of an infuriatingly pig-headed constituency of the American population, hardly anyone will fight with you or tell you otherwise when you insist you are of a particular way.
In some matters, there is no choice.
When people look at my brother, they see him, and they see me.
One body, two identities, each one outsourced, converging in the mind of someone else.
I can say with confidence that my brother’s girlfriend has never accidentally had sex with me. I’d stop her if she got confused and tried. I have great faith that she can tell the two of us apart. I have greater faith that I can tell her and my own girlfriend apart.
The question has come up a couple of times between my brother and me: Who would rather die first? It’s a question spouses ask each other, one that doesn’t have a pleasant answer. Who will be the first in the ground? Who will be the one to remember life with a brother, burdened with memory like a phantom limb?
Does it matter?
I cannot speak of him without mentioning myself. His name lacks meaning. Michael is not him. Eric is not me. He is brother to me. I am brother to him.
Him. Me. Us. I.
The one implicit in the other; the one dies with the other.
I am not myself.
I look at my hands and say, “These are my hands.” They are short and wide. The middle knuckle of my left hand’s middle finger is chronically swollen. My brother has a white scar on one of his fingers from the time it was accidentally slammed in the sliding door of our family’s old Chevy Astro. His hands are stronger than mine, fatter fingers that hold more power to grip and squeeze. His veins pop higher and pulse with greater strength.
I imagine what it’s like for an old actress who hasn’t worked for decades. She’s pent up in her guest house overlooking the topiaries, where sometimes she practices Tai chi. This little sandstone house is where her third husband lived long ago when he was just her gardener. Now she is old and alone, trying to resist the stereotypes others apply to her. Instead of surrounding herself with memorabilia from her glory days—photographs she took with Dennis Hopper, Grace Kelly, Marlon Brando, or her shelf of trophies, those gold-molded bodies standing tall and streamlined in triumphant postures, or the posters of her masterworks framed and numbered by her estate—she stands in the center of the room with the television turned on and playing the film that made her famous. The volume is muted. She cradles a cup of coffee made from grounds she purchased herself in Little Saigon, careful not to spill on the pantsuit she wears when she gets interviewed (because she still gets interviewed, occasionally).
She feels dignified, like the longtime interlocutor of humankind’s fraught condition that she knows she is. As such, she recognizes her small vulnerabilities. The mug is just as big or small as any other, but she can feel its slight weight goading her hands lower and lower. She sits, sets it on the end table beside the framed photo of herself and her third husband taken ten years back, just before he got sick. Because she has spent a lifetime forcing herself to feel the terrible range of human emotion, she accepts the temptation to indulge her sadness, to grace his smiling face with the side of her hand and fixate on the photo’d color of her trademark fiery hair, not yet so gray at that point.
But she needs to complete the gesture. Despite her efforts to fight back categorization, to refuse the notion that has been growing inside her, telling her that she is a washed up actress, she turns to the television and stares at the younger version of herself. Gleaming orange curls filmed and edited, bouncing and shaking as her young unravaged face rages and she clutches a pillow to her still-firm bosom, and Jimmy Stewart—her character’s scorned lover—reaches out and tears the strap of her silk negligee.
It’s her on the screen. The credits even say so.
She looks at her aged hands. The brown spots. The blue veins. The swollen knuckles. The actress on the TV is different than standing, watching her. She gazes at her former self, recognizing the young actress as an entirely separate person, wondering what that girl she sees is thinking, if she’s looking at her old self, or if that self is merely the character on the screen. What is it that’s possibly happening in that girl’s mind, she wonders, the one that used to be her’s?
It’s a weird thing to know people view you in ways fundamentally different to those in which you view yourself. It’s easy to fret over how you are perceived, what people expect when they see you, what that means for who you actually are.
My cousin might be a classifiable Sovereign Citizen. Before he deleted me on Facebook, I would see his own assertions: the anti-government, anti-taxation propaganda he likes to post online. This is the cousin who told me LGBTQ people should be corralled, persecuted, and banished from society when he was just 16 or 17 years old. This cousin may view himself in terms of his religion and his politics. Both of these, I’m certain, are very close to his heart. I’m also certain he doesn’t know about the way I view him, the associations I make between the thought of him, waking up early in the winter, and turning on the Nintendo Game Cube to play 007: Nightfire until my mom forced us to stop for breakfast, then later, after we’d picked back up and binged on the game more, for lunch.
I don’t know how this cousin might view me. I don’t know if he understands me in terms of my politics, or if there’s some memory he has that I can’t recall that might change how I view myself.
I don’t know if he bothers to distinguish me from my twin brother, or if maybe he thinks he does, and that he has some other memory in which he thinks I am present, when in reality it was my brother who was there, if my cousin thinks back on a particular moment—picking pussywillows in the ditch, or shooting tin cans behind my grandmother’s house—and wonders if I remember it when there’s no possible way I could.
Would it matter?
Would it matter if, in someone else’s mind, I was substituted for my brother, or him for me?
I tend to run around in circles wondering what the difference is between the way someone perceives himself, how others perceive him, and how he perceives others perceiving him.
I used to work at a bank downtown. It was in a tall skyscraper named for the company that employed me. At night, when the skyscraper is lit up, it looks like there’s a slim golden box of french fries overlooking the Minneapolis skyline.
I remember a small space used as a security buffer between the lobby and the teller line. This space had a door on each side. To get from the lobby to the little space, you needed a key card administered by the head of building security. To get from the little space to behind the teller line, you needed to enter the special code into the keypad on the second door. This little space doubled as a coat room for the tellers. We could keep our coats and boots there during the winter, our umbrellas during the spring and summer. There was a skinny window tucked between the coat rack and the stack of footlockers that I would stand beside as I braced myself for my shifts and caught my breath after. I liked to gaze out and watch the people scurry by. People on lunch, people shopping, people pacing from meeting to meeting, people asking for change, cursing the city for being so cold. I wondered, when I looked out, what the city looked like to these people, if it was some hulking metropolis sprouted from the earth itself, if it was a minor blip between Chicago and Seattle. I wondered if they saw the same beauty in the buildings as I did, or felt the wind whistle the same way in their ears. I wondered if things appeared physically different for the people that I would see? What would they describe for me if I were to ask? I thought about how they couldn’t, how nothing they would say could possibly render their world with the precise intensity and detail they’d experience. I’d get this far in my thoughts, wondering if anything I saw was true, or if everything anybody perceives is some mirage that approximates the similar mirages other people see, or if other people’s mirages are wildly different, communicable only through the languages applied to them, and spiral myself nearly into catatonia, terrified of the gap between me and the bank’s customers as we stared at each other from across the granite counter, realizing that this gap isn’t personal or impersonal, that it wedges itself between me and those I’m closest to, that it separates parts of myself from other parts of a different self, relinquishing total access, mystifying me.
I am not myself.
A few years after the bank, my girlfriend accompanied me when I visited my parents for Christmas. My twin brother also brought his girlfriend. One evening, between errands and dinner, I scanned my parents’ bookshelf for something good to read. I wound up focusing on an old picture placed between stacks of books. Keith, my older brother, held Michael and I in his lap in front of a Christmas tree and presents. Michael and I were infants. It was our first Christmas. We were crying. I scanned our infant faces, trying to figure out who was who. I couldn’t. One of us wore blue, and the other wore red. We looked exactly the same otherwise. I heard my girlfriend make a joke behind me. She asked my brother in a voice of schoolyard mockery if he loves me. I can imagine the look he gave her—his lips flattened, chin tucked, brow furrowed, looking up at her with his head pitched forward. She laughed. Between their words, sung in their gestures, I heard the faint whispers of the words that we first spoke. I looked at our baby faces and thought, “Aye-ack. Mye-doe.”
I am not myself. I am perpetually estranged from me. I rarely understand the things I do. Sometimes, like in calculus class, I ponder what the limits are of a single person, how many times the pronoun “I” can be subdivided before it reaches zero and is effaced. One night, I scroll through my private Facebook messages to see what I’ve forgotten. There is an apology I wrote, “I’m so sorry for how I acted last night. I was drunk.” There is a message from a girl, “Carl thinks you hate him.” This is a girl Carl once dated, who I had a small fling with after. I haven’t spoken to Carl in years. I’ve forgotten he once thought this about me. I scroll some more, reading old conversations, the archives of different selves that don’t match who I think I am now or who I thought I was then.
Who was this person? How different is he from the one that reads about him?
In the weeks that follow, I wonder what else people remember about me that I myself don’t. I wonder, too, what I remember about other people that they themselves have forgotten. My brother, who is and is not me, turns as prickly as a cactus whenever his ex-girlfriend comes up in conversation. His limbs go rigid, his face stoic and nondescript. I wonder what happens behind his eyes in these moments, what memories he recalls that I don’t have access to, how deep into the reserves his consciousness delves to feed his brain with associations, what these associations are and how they feel? It’s then that I sense myself slipping into the invisible void that exists between all people. The one that can be felt whenever someone makes a silent gesture, or when there’s nothing left to say. His eyes, wide and fixed as though the world has been drawn back especially for him to see behind it, tell me everything and nothing. Then a slow dread increases and grows over my body like a mold, and I fear that what I see in him does not match what he feels, and the reality that we don’t share a brain, that we aren’t the same person, that having an identity means traversing the world alone, becomes suddenly profound and terrifying, and I close my eyes and wonder why I shouldn’t just succumb to memories recalled and forgotten, to the notion that I and all are like facets on an infinitely-sided die that’s always being rolled and then rolled again. I search myself. I seek some kind of definition, some words I can speak to express the idea, “This is me,” so that someone else will understand it in the same way I do. I try to answer all the questions of who I am, who I was, who I can be, to myself and others, which is dizzying. Then I open my eyes again and see that my brother’s have changed. They look at me. They scan my body. They tether me to the earth. “Aye-ack,” I think, “Mye-doe.” Two brothers. The one implicit in the other.